Crossing the T

Life at the intersection of Church and Trans with Rev. Allyson Robinson

Archive for Books

Power, vulnerability, and getting read

I got read this morning.

The circumstances aren’t really relevant beyond setting the context. I had just come up out of the Metro and was walking the couple of blocks to my office when a man stopped me to ask a question. My answer didn’t satisfy him and he became angry and closed in on me, close enough to pick up some subtle cue that caused him to suspect I was transgender. He yelled an accusation to that end loudly as I was walking away, and I felt my cheeks flush with anger and embarrassment.

I feel blessed that this has happened to me very rarely since I transitioned, but when it has it’s left me reeling with self-doubt. As I walked to the office today, that’s where my thoughts went. I was obviously doing something wrong. Was my make-up or my hair unsuitable this morning? Maybe it was the clothes I was wearing, or my posture or gait. Or perhaps something deeper or more abstruse. Is my jawline too square (“Maybe I need some plastic surgery”), are my hands too big (“I wish I had some pockets to stuff them in”), is my voice shifting to a lower range (“Need to start concentrating on that again”)?

And then I noticed that I was walking more quickly than usual, with my head down and my shoulders slouched, fearful of meeting anyone’s eyes as I passed them on the street, wanting only to get to my office and shut the door. I was in that old, familiar place, I realized — the place of fear — and I was experiencing that old, familiar tension, the one between the deep desire to live openly and with integrity and the frantic impulse to safety and security.

In her book Woman Awake: Women Practicing Buddhism, Christina Feldman has a great chapter on power and the ways women experience and practice it in our culture. She writes,

In a patriarchal culture, power is equated with the capacity to have power over something: it is the capacity to control, to alter, to manipulate, or to influence the world. This capacity to control builds a sense of strength, an illusion of invincibility. Cloaking ourselves in power, we can manipulate and control our world while protecting ourselves from the effects of power.

This is the power that was employed against me this morning, but it is also the power I employed in response. Just as the man who accosted me sought to control and manipulate me to bolster his sense of strength in the world, I sought to control and manipulate myself so that I might feel less weak and vulnerable. Our instruments of power–debasement and humiliation–were the same, and we even chose the same target, my deepest sense of personhood.

These ways of being and relating are conditioned by our culture and deeply ingrained in all of us, but Feldman reminds us that such violent exercises of power do not come without cost:

In developing power or mastery over anything, we set ourselves against that which we wish to control: we set ourselves against people, against events, against nature, or even against our own nature. With the desire for mastery comes a distancing from that which we seek to control. The distance is essential to create and preserve: it serves to prevent us from being overwhelmed by the power of others and to protect ourselves from fear.

The results are predictable and inevitable: isolation, competition, destruction, the hallmarks of our modern society. Feldman urges women to break free from their cultural conditioning, to “appreciate the invaluable contribution that their disposition and yearning for interconnectedness can offer to the dissolution and transformation of destructive systems that are based on the notion of mastery over others.” The first step in this process of integration and liberation, for me at least, is getting comfortable with my own vulnerability.

I need to warm up to the fact that invincibility is a myth and reject the notion that self-respect is a zero sum game. I need to reaffirm my commitment to live according to what I know to be true, not according to what feels safe, and set aside identities and roles rooted in defensiveness. I need to refuse to give my assent (and thereby surrender my true power) to social systems and relational structures that deny our mutual dependency as human beings, a truth Feldman calls “nature’s first law” and the fundamental principle of our survival, both as a race and as individuals.

As these become my practice, I will grow in awareness and acquire a deeper wholeness. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

(Cross-posted at Trans Group Blog.)

Family Equality announces drawing contest winners

Congratulations to the winners of the second annual Family Equality Council “Family Drawing Contest!”  First place, and a $250 savings bond, went to eight-year-old Julian fom New Mexico for his picture of his family camping at the lake

You can see all the winning pictures at the contest website, or download the e-book Homework, Hugs and Love: A Family Like Yours, which has all of the over 50 drawings submitted and a foreword by children’s author Todd Parr, from the Council’s “Publications” page.

Once again, congratulations to the winners, and to all the kids who sent in drawings.  I think you’re awesome!

Can I Quote You? Gayle Carlton Felton on church membership

One becomes a member of a church by baptism. Those who advocate giving pastors the authority to determine membership ignore the significance of the sacrament.

Methodist theologian Gayle Carlton Felton, writing in a new pamphlet entitled Concerning Church Membership and the Authority of the Pastor

And a comment from me: Churches and leaders of all denominations and traditions that style themselves “welcoming, not affirming” of LGBT people must become aware of the ecclesiological and sacramental implications of that stance.  I would wager that the vast majority of these churches and leaders have not yet done the theological heavy lifting Felton calls them to here.

Thanks to Religion Is a Queer Thing.

The problem of (transgender) pain

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Someone once said, “If you preach about pain, you’ll never lack an audience.”  My own experience, both in the pew and in the pulpit, confirms the truism.  The reason is intuitively obvious:  the current of suffering passes through every life, leaving among the ruins in its wake the Great Question, “Why?”  The whole human race, it seems, is seeking an answer.

Our credibility as ministers of the gospel–and, by extension, the credibility of our gospel as a body of teaching and as God’s message to the cosmos–hangs on the answers we offer to this universal question of suffering.  If people find our answers to this question unsatisfactory, they will (rightly, I think) reject off hand the answers we might offer to any other questions they ask.  In his new book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer, Bart Ehrman (Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) describes how his own search for an answer led him away from evangelical Christianity and, ultimately, to agnosticism.  (Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air interviewedDr. Ehrman this week; you can listen to the interview and read an excerpt from Ehrman’s book here.)

I can relate to Ehrman’s journey.  My own questions formed in the fire of the pain brought about by feeling like a woman in a world and a church that required me to be a man.  Why would God do such a thing to me?  As I wrote in the “coming out” letter I sent to some of my dearest and most respected Christian friends,

For most of my life, I believed that this deep impulse I felt to live as a woman was sin or sickness, and I prayed fervently for God to heal me.  The fact that God did not heal me, in spite of all my pleading, led two years ago to the most profound crisis of faith I have ever experienced.  There seemed to be three possible explanations.  My prayers had gone unanswered because (1) God did not actually exist, (2) God felt no compassion for my suffering, or (3) my feelings were neither sick nor sinful, and I was free to seek a way to integrate them into my life. 

As one of my friends who received my letter was quick to remind me, there is another possible explanation.  Perhaps my being transgender was something akin to the burden the apostle Paul refered to as his “thorn in the flesh.”

In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor 12:7b-11)

Reading these words over the years, I wondered if perhaps feeling myself to be a woman, feeling discomfort at being forced to exist in the world as a man, was my thorn in the flesh.  Was it simply my cross to bearRead the rest of this entry »

Ten books every transperson should read

Catching up with the meme that’s been circulating among the Bilerico Project writers, Rebecca Juro blogged “Ten books every transperson should read” this morning.  She’s got a great list, and the comments have filled in any gaps she might have left.

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